Rediscovering Tradition


A while ago Matt and I developed a draft ‘mission statement’ for this venture: "Vine & Branches exists to help Christians rediscover our tradition, reengage our spiritual disciplines, and ultimately renew our hearts to God, because we believe only those things can help churches, individuals, and families rise to seek God's face again."

I’m going to use my blog posts the next few Mondays to explore what we mean by this provisional statement. Today: the rediscovery of our tradition. 

We commonly say that people are creatures of habit. We have our morning routines, our bedtime rituals, and our seasonal and holiday customs. We have our food and coffee and driving and sleeping and working and relaxing rhythms that help us remember important things like brushing our teeth and help us successfully perform tasks like driving home with almost no apparent mental exertion. And sometimes these little habits come to mean something deeply personal to us. Risking an overstatement, they can even come to define who we are, or who we understand ourselves to be. 

Tradition functions in a similar, but deeper and more social or communal, way. We collectively celebrate and mark and mourn things in certain kinds of ways not just because “we’ve always done them that way”, but because these traditions help us remember certain things or successfully do certain tasks with relative ease. Maybe even more importantly, the traditions of a community can come to define that community - a community is the people who do this thing at this time in this type of way.

That’s probably why we sometimes use the word “tradition” to mean an activity that a community does over and over through time, and sometimes we use the word “tradition” to refer to the community itself, extended through time. We talk about the tradition of Islam, the Jewish tradition, or the Christian tradition. And we also talk about the discrete traditions of those communities: for instance, Muslims fast during Ramadan, Jews eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs at Passover, and Christians gather together on Sundays to eat bread and drink wine. 

Protestants sometimes struggle with this. Tradition is a Roman Catholic word, we think. We think and act sometimes as if it’s up to us to figure out Christianity on our own, as if we have to come up with all the answers ourselves.

But we need to be careful here. It’s naive to think that I can maintain a robust Christian life with just me, the Bible, and Jesus. Christians need the church - we need a community to journey through life with, to sharpen us like iron, to encourage and challenge us, to supply the gifts we don’t have, and to be the neighbors and even enemies that remind us that we have not yet arrived at perfection as we struggle to love and forgive and serve alongside them. 

But just like a Christian needs the church, churches need tradition. We don’t just have each other, those of us in the faith who are alive today in 2017. We have all the women and men that have gone before us too. I don’t have to derive all the answers afresh from Scripture, because I’ve got Irenaeus and Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Edwards, Kierkegaard and Newman, Barth and Bonhoeffer.

But my point here is not the stress-increasing suggestion that now in addition to mastering the 66 books of the Bible I'm going to ask you to try to master the library of books produced by these authors and others like them. My point is the hopefully stress-reducing one that none of this is about mastery at all - I'm merely suggesting that you have plenty of companions for the journey, plenty of wise friends to lean on and from whom to seek counsel. 

Even the apostle Paul leaned on those that went before, and we should to: 

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.
— 1 Cor. 11:23-25 NIV

As far as I can tell, Paul isn’t referring to a note Jesus slipped him after the Damascus road event - Paul truly received this tradition from the Lord, but in all likelihood the Lord used tradition to give it to him.

All of this raises at least a few questions worth pondering:

  1. What traditions do you love to engage in the most?
  2. As best you can tell, which traditions and habits that you participate in are helping you become more like Jesus? Do you think any of your habits or traditions might be making you less like Jesus?
  3. What traditions does your church or denomination seem to love the most? Where do these traditions come from? How do you think they are shaping your hearts?
  4. Can you think of any traditions you or your church should consider reviving? 
Cabe MatthewsComment